In these next two chapters, I will focus even closer on this moment, in order to test some of the implications of the framework that I have so far constructed – vocal-subject, objective instrumental forces, song, track, music – for ‘I Feel Love’ and for vocal pop music in general. This is particularly important because of the potentially fraught political and ethical implications of following such easy cleavages (between subject and object, voice and instruments, individual and society), when the sort of Adorno-inspired hermeneutics described in earlier chapters have been so extensively challenged in recent decades by more radical, and more optimistic, bodies of theory. To these ends, I will attempt to embed my analysis more deeply within the highly political aesthetics of Deleuze and Guattari, and thence to confront it with the scholarship that arose from the UK rave movement in the ‘90s (Simon Reynolds, Jeremy Gilbert & Ewan Pearson, Drew Hemment), which was so clearly informed by their philosophy from its inception.
In this chapter, I outline two different ways of conceptualising ‘music’, which loosely correspond to the ‘objective instrumental forces’ and the ‘vocal-subject’ respectively. The first is Deleuze & Guattari’s idea of the ‘refrain’, and its ‘deterritorialisation’, which establishes one of the most striking and far-reaching understandings of sound as ‘space’, ‘terrain’, ‘environment’, ‘substance’, etc. The second involves my thinking through the notion of a ‘musical action’, with all its various modalities and the volatility that this gives it. Finally, I suggest that the radical potential of both these music-strategies is explicitly invoked by the vocal-subject in ‘I Feel Love’, as a way of articulating a radical approach to desire: the kind of ‘deterritorialised’ desire that dance music theorists have discussed in terms of jouissance and ekstasis.
These three movements of ‘deterritorialisation’ bring ‘I Feel Love’ close to the situated, spatialised electronic dance music, pioneered in the raves of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, that is so celebrated for its disintegration of the divisions between subject and object, self and other, closed psyche and open world. The next chapter deals with the problems that occur when this ‘music’ becomes ‘song’ – when the vocal-subject reappears in its midst – given how cursorily the role and power of the voice is regarded throughout all this theory.
Music as the Deterritorialisation of the Refrain
As I argued in the last chapter, when Donna Summer sings ‘oo heaven knows’, she effects a change of the synth groove – the material substance of the songworld in which she moves – that I’ve otherwise called her sonic ‘terrain’. I have briefly touched on the implications of hearing this aspect of a song in terms of a singular and ephemeral ‘space-time’, brought into existence through the performance (playback) of the track. Perhaps the dimension of time might seem more proper as a perceptible quality of musical substance than space, the latter seeming perhaps more metaphorical. However, this needn’t strictly be the case; it depends on how one conceives of other, less ‘metaphorical’ forms of space. If space is merely a way in which we are able to organise our experience of the world – to perceive clear relationships between differentiated objects – then to shift the nature of those objects from visible/tactile to audible doesn’t change the fundamental nature of space. What’s most important is that space provides an impression of fixity, of being oriented, in a world which is fundamentally in flux.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in their book A Thousand Plateaus, construct a number of different ways of thinking about apparent coherence, closedness, stasis, totalisation, self-identity, fixity, etc., in what they affirm to be a Spinozan world of ‘becoming’ as opposed to ‘being’: a world fundamentally constituted by flows of particles and affects of different speeds (what they call ‘the plane of consistency’ or ‘the plane of immanence’). They think of these phenomena as involving the temporary formation of territories; given the constant flux of the world’s ‘becoming’, the impression/effect of particular fixed territories is achieved through a continual process of territorialisation. This concept (as well as its derivations – ‘deterritorialisation’ and ‘reterritorialisation’) is at the very heart of A Thousand Plateaus, and will be used extensively in the next couple of chapters.
In discussing music (and its connections to anthropological and zoological phenomena), Deleuze & Guattari develop a theory of the ‘refrain’ – ‘the block of content proper to music’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013 (henceforth, ATP): 299) – which functions as a musical ‘territory’. They give the example of a child, lost in the dark, comforting itself by singing a little repetitive tune which can function as a kind of precarious ‘home’, ‘a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos’ (ATP 311). This little tune has an identity, a content, a stability. It might be an initial theme or motif. It is the raw matter of music – ‘a crystal of space-time’, it ‘fabricates time’ while remaining ‘a formula evoking a character or landscape’ (ATP 348-349). However, for Deleuze & Guattari, the refrain is not music, but music is something that happens to the refrain (or ‘becomes with’ the refrain):
We are not at all saying that the refrain is the origin of music, or that music begins with it. It is not really known when music begins. The refrain is rather a means of preventing music, warding it off, or forgoing it. But music exists because the refrain exists also, because music takes up the refrain, lays hold of it as a content in a form of expression, because it forms a block with it in order to take it somewhere else. (ATP 300)Music, for Deleuze and Guattari, is becoming. It is the becoming not-itself of the refrain (its ‘development’ or ‘working’, perhaps). This is to say that music occurs in the changing of the refrain into something else, what they would call its ‘deterritorialisation’ in that there is a departure from the initial territory of the refrain, which duly breaks apart, losing its sense of stability or ‘home’, and must be reconstituted into something else, via a ‘reterritorialisation’:
Music is a creative, active operation that consists in deterritorializing the refrain. Whereas the refrain is essentially territorial, territorializing, or reterritorializing, music makes it a deterritorialized content for a deterritorializing form of expression. (ATP 300)The musical refrain is an important figure for Deleuze and Guattari since, according to their ontology, it provides something of a model for all similar ‘patterns’ or ‘rhythms’ in the world; they provide many examples from the animal kingdom, but these could easily extend to every aspect of our individual, collective, material and psychic lives. The looping refrain – a repetitive habit, action or practice – affects a comforting quality, something we can dwell within. Such refrains provide the semblance of a knowable, stable, predictable lifeworld, yet when they come into proximity with other forces (another body or multitude of bodies with their own different speeds and refrains, a tool or a weapon, etc.), their arbitrariness is revealed, dissipating them and allowing us to follow a line beyond them and transform our lives and our worlds.
Music dispatches molecular flows. Of course, as Messiaen says, music is not the privilege of human beings: the universe, the cosmos, is made of refrains; the question in music is that of a power of deterritorialization permeating nature, animals, the elements, and deserts as much as human beings. (ATP 309)Refrains can be identified at many different levels in music: on the level of beats, micro-motives, bars and phrases, rhythmic ostinati, melodic themes, recurring sections and sequences, harmonic progressions and stanzas. It could easily be argued that pop music, and pop music that verges on electronic dance music in particular, is significantly more replete with refrains than, say, Edgard Varèse or Michael Finnissy (or Boulez), and hence clings more tightly to a set of illusory territories. Certainly, it has been argued on these terms that pop music isn’t actually ‘music’, in the Deleuzoguattarian sense.1 But the authors themselves put emphasis on the moment of deterritorialisation, rather than the suppression of all refrains. They give the example of Bartók, who borrows ‘autonomous, self-sufficient’ folk tunes and applies chromaticism to break them loose into a more expansive ‘form’:
We may say long live Chabrier, as opposed to Schoenberg, just as Nietzsche said long live Bizet, and for the same reasons, with the same technical and musical intent. We go from modality to an untempered, widened chromaticism. We do not need to suppress tonality, we need to turn it loose. We go from assembled refrains (territorial, popular, romantic, etc.) to the great cosmic machined refrain. (ATP 350)On the scale of the singular disco track, the exact same is true. What is important to Deleuze & Guattari’s project of ‘pragmatics’ is not necessarily attempting to manufacture a meaningless chaos of noise with no possibility of orientation (i.e. the opposite of the refrain), but instead to systematically cut loose from refrain after refrain, to keep moving, keep ‘becoming’ otherwise. There is no final state of total euphoric disorientation possible; the process of deterritorialising is the goal.
With ‘oo heaven knows’, then, the melodic sequence that the vocal-subject follows ‘forms a block of content’ (or ‘an assemblage’) with the rigid groove and its C-rooted harmony. In doing so, it ‘deterritorialises’ the groove. The synth refrain becomes a mobile accompaniment, a harmonic progression, serving the vocal melody. It is hardly a long way to travel, from static groove to harmonic progression, but it is a deterritorialisation nonetheless. After all, the groove might have stayed the same – affirming the same harmonic ‘home’ – throughout the whole track; this is common enough in dance music genres.
In my description of this event in the last chapter, I state that – from the perspective of the ‘vocal-subject’ – everything stays the same until it changes. From an understanding of the refrain, this must be modified slightly. Since even a single sustained synth note cannot remain ‘itself’ from nanosecond to nanosecond (for one thing, ‘its’ duration, and therefore ‘its’ rhythmic value, is always extending and therefore changing), sonic objects are clearly always in the process of becoming; they never just ‘are’. The difference between ‘staying the same’ and ‘changing’ is the difference between the refrain repeating and thereby reproducing itself (or its sense of itself as a distinct territory), and the deterritorialisation of that refrain (its becoming-music).
Since the ‘remaining the same’ of the refrain involves a constant process (of repetition or reproduction), Deleuze and Guattari acknowledge its dynamic potential, its necessary precarity (for instance, the unbalanced four-bar phrase as it reaches its conclusion, the dominant progression, the crescendo, the directional contour):
A territory is always en route to an at least potential deterritorialization, even though the new assemblage may operate a reterritorialization (something that "has-the-value-of” home). (ATP 326)In this way, they can enumerate a typology of refrains, which affirms this sense of the refrain as a territory that can be the site of struggle:
(1) territorial refrains that seek, mark, assemble a territory;Hence features of the synth groove refrain such as the clearly demarcated 4/4 metre, a cyclic bass ostinato which moves from tonic to dominant pitch in order to roll back up to tonic, and a regular grouping of bars into groups of four. The completion of each of these refrains is also a movement towards a potential deterritorialisation; the refrain could repeat, but it could also be carried off elsewhere, perhaps by some immanent directional movement within the refrain itself (for instance, by following the melodic shape of the bass ostinato upwards) or perhaps by forming a new assemblage with another sonic body (in this case, the vocal-subject’s smooth melodic body).
(2) territorialized function refrains that assume a special function in the assemblage; […]
(3) the same, when they mark new assemblages, pass into new assemblages by means of deterritorialization-reterritorialization; […]
(4) refrains that collect or gather forces, either at the heart of the territory, or in order to go outside it (these are refrains of confrontation or departure that sometimes bring on a movement of absolute deterritorialization). (ATP 326-327)
In this way, the voice’s musical actions – the sonic objects that it traces – can also constitute ‘refrains’. Here, the smooth mobility of the sequential vocal melody has the power to deterritorialise the rigid, striated groove. It passes into, and marks, a new assemblage, a ‘song’ assemblage. The vocal-subject and groove are mutually reconstituted in terms of the power of the former over the latter, in combination with the listener’s interpretation of this particular power relationship within the context of the whole song, as mediated by the lyrics, title and other ‘extramusical’ signs.2 But it is still only a relative deterritorialisation. Indeed, every deterritorialisation is accompanied by a new reterritorialisation: ‘in each case, we must simultaneously consider factors of territoriality, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization’.
[When] music lays hold of the refrain and deterritorializes it, […] when it lays hold of the refrain and sends it racing off in a rhythmic sound block, when the refrain "becomes" Schumann or Debussy, it is through a system of melodic and harmonic coordinates by means of which music reterritorializes upon itself, qua music…. We must therefore take a number of factors into consideration: relative territorialities, their respective deterritorializations, and their correlative reterritorializations, several types of them (for example, intrinsic reterritorializations such as musical coordinates, and extrinsic ones such as the deterioration of the refrain into a hackneyed formula, or music into a ditty). (ATP 303)One of my contentions is that, within a certain listening practice, moments such as ‘oo heaven knows’ result in the (vocal) refrain reterritorialising on a certain notion of a ‘musical agent/action’.
Music as the Deterritorialisation of the Voice
My portrait of the vocal-subject up until this point has emphasised the ‘agential’ aspects of song vocals – the relation of vocal events to an expressive subject ‘behind’ them.3 To hear “oo heaven knows” as the manifestation of a vocal-subject – as Summer’s sonic body, occupying a sonic space-time with the particular (real) physicality by which sound can occupy (real) space– is to hear it primarily on the ‘agential level’. We hear its musical characteristics, including its relative ‘smoothness’, as characteristics of that particular agent. But there are other dimensions by which we can hear a particular sonic event; for starters, our sense of the character of a musical agent is largely defined by what kind of actions that particular musical agent is capable of. Its autonomy as an agent follows on from the actions that are ascribed to it, and by which it is effectively composed. A vocal phrase of this kind is therefore always a musical action first and foremost, one of the results of which is to construct the vocal-subject as agent sufficient to this action (comparable to the manner in which subjects are constructed through language in the ‘real’ social world).
In all my analyses, discrete sound events can therefore be understood as simultaneously possessing (at least) four different modalities, through which narrative hearings can be variously constructed in order to affirm a particular politics. These are as follows:
- Sound as produced: The sound is the result of a musical action. The sound is testimony to a successful action (or suggestive of an intended, failed action), the trace/by-product of an action, or the action’s direct product (i.e. sound-making actions, ‘song acts’).
- Sound as product: A shift from the (evident/implied) action behind the sound to the sound-as-product itself (i.e. the sound object). The sound has a material/physical consistency and identity; by distributing space and time, it itself becomes ‘a space-time’; as material, it can be ‘worked’, bearing the results on itself, changing but not losing its identity. The materiality of sound is also the materiality of the sonic body, the audible self, sound-as-presence, etc.
- Sound as producer: A shift from sound-as-object to sound-as-subject. The sonic object (musical action) becomes a synecdoche, standing in for the vocal-subject (musical agent). However, at the same time, the sum of the vocal actions as sound objects is also entirely sufficient for the composition of the vocal-subject (unlike, perhaps, the vocalist, the artist, ‘the composer’s voice’, which are all represented only partially). The sound is the producer of itself; it is the only manifestation of its own producer.
- Sound as productive: A shift from sound-as-its-own-product to a broader consideration of the power of a musical action. Sound has the potentiality/potency to affect other sounds, other musical agents, the listener, etc. On the one hand, since all meaning is produced in the act of reception, sound has already produced its own identity (as object, subject, product, trace, or just as ‘music’ in the first place) in the mind of the listener. But at the same time, a musical action can initiate, prolong, curtail and proscribe other musical actions, either directly or by contributing to a sonic context in which such actions are made possible or impossible, powerful or powerless.
It is therefore not only meaning but also power that is concentrated in this ‘oo’. It is my suggestion that ‘I Feel Love’ emphasises the power of the multivalent vocal action by having this high-power moment coincide with a syllable whose semiotic power exceeds language. The protean nature of the vocal action as musical/sonic phenomenon is combined with the equally volatile nature of signifiance (Barthes), which exceeds and interrupts the linguistic meaning of any utterance. On the one hand, Summer’s ‘oo’ could be said to enter the realm of signifiance – the product of what Roland Barthes famously called ‘the grain of the voice’ – that is held up by Ewan Pearson and Jeremy Gilbert, in their Discographies (1999), as one of the sources of dance music’s particular access to jouissance. They relate this to Julia Kristeva’s order of the ‘semiotic’, as opposed to the ‘symbolic’:
We can understand this distinction to some extent in terms of the distinction between meaning and affect. The symbolic is that aspect of signification which produces meaning as such; the order of coherent classification. The semiotic is the order of pre-linguistic affect, of the unconscious drives as they organize and disrupt the subject and its experience of its body. (Gilbert & Pearson, 1999: 62)They go on to characterise the role of the ‘grain’, for Barthes, as being ‘to open up signifiance, that often pleasurable process – characteristic of Kristeva’s ‘semiotic’ – which derives from the action of the signifier itself, beyond, superfluous to and independent of the act of signification’ (63). ‘oo’ can certainly be heard in terms of a foregrounding of ‘grain’, in fitting with the pleasure of the groove that certainly resists signification. However, ‘oo’ does have symbolic, expressive value in that it speaks of a subject experiencing a feeling, and it articulates this feeling through an expression of signifiance: effectively, signifiance subordinated to the signification of an instance of itself, as a means of conjuring a realistic vocal-subject.
In this way, the song plays with and around the possibility and necessity of linguistic expression. ‘oo’ is already a response, a reaction to something (the ‘it’ which is ‘so good’). It may be a response to the instrumental texture in general, the irresistible pleasure of the beat; to hear the initial ‘oo’ as emerging from the sustained synth, or as a transfiguration of the synthetic sound into an organic (sonic) body, might involve hearing ‘oo’ as a continuation of whatever impulse initiated the sustained synth, or as a by-product of this emergence (sound as produced). It is the result of a feeling. However, ‘oo it’s so good/oo heaven knows’ then proceeds to disavow the possibility of describing that particular feeling through language, while asserting its tangibility in vocal non-language (sound as product), a dynamic which is reproduced by the transformative power ascribed to each vocal action (sound as productive).
Finally, ‘oo’ is immanent to the apparition of the vocal-subject. All vocal styles are manners of appearing-in-the-guise-of this or that. Appearing with an ‘oo’ forces the listener to consider the sonic body of the vocal-subject first and foremost, to acknowledge the fact of her singing and its intentionality/materiality, before attending to any linguistic content (sound as producer).4
It is only when we reach the third line of ‘I Feel Love’ that we actually come to associate the powerful, primary ‘oo’ with the notion of ‘feeling love’ or ‘the feeling of love’. This association is achieved by transferring the power value of ‘oo’ onto the word ‘love’. Summer sings ‘oo I feel love’, and then reiterates ‘I feel LO-O-O-OVE’, and the power to change the harmony of the instrumental forces is thereby reassigned to ‘love’ (or to its extended vowel content: from ‘u’ to ‘ʌ’ in phonetic terms). Moreover, these instrumental forces undergo the same series of chord changes as the previous three lines, condensed into a single phrase, which increases the sense of equivalence: ‘oo’ = ‘love’. In this way, the first verse can be heard as three ‘clues’ (or coded statements) and a ‘solution’ (or translation/summary):
(what is it?) IT’S SO GOODWhat is significant is that the power/effect of the ‘feeling’ is shown first, and only then does it receive its name. First the affect, then the assignation. First ‘I Feel…’ and then ‘…Love’.
(wow what is it?) HEAVEN KNOWS
(omg what is it?) I FEEL LOVE
Yes, it’s LOVE! It’s LOVE! It’s LOVE! It’s LOVE!
Deleuze & Guattari also have something to say about this; in fact, the opening up of these non-linguistic spaces is the second main correlate in their theory of music: ‘Music is a deterritorialization of the voice, which becomes less and less tied to language’ (ATP 302). This has deeper implications for a vocal-subject, in that the deterritorialisation of the voice was initially achieved in the ‘machining of the voice’ (what Deleuze & Guattari call ‘the first musical operation’, before rather anachronistically going on to focus on Renaissance Europe), which involved a parallel deterritorialisation of gender. Deleuze & Guattari’s example, which they take from Dominique Fernandez’s La Rose des Tudors, is the rise of the countertenor and the castrato in England and Italy respectively. The cultivation of these vocal styles – the machining of the voice in each case – led to the voice becoming-music by ‘[abolishing] the overall dualism machine, in other words, the molar formation assigning voices to the “man or woman”’: ‘Being a man or a woman no longer exists in music’ (ATP 304).5
In Deleuzoguattarian terminology, the vocal-subject as I have described it is precisely this ‘becoming-music’ of the voice. All of my interpretations are predicated upon the variety of ‘becomings’ into which the singing voice can enter (Deleuze & Guattari’s ubiquitous examples are ‘becomings-woman’, ‘becomings-child’, ‘becomings-bird’, ‘becomings-molecular’) in order to become other-than-itself (i.e., more than just a human voice, or the vocal persona of an individual human subject). However, in pop music particularly, the voice is hardly transfigured into a pure flow of abstraction; the vocal-subject is also all of those things onto which the deterritorialised voice reterritorialises. Deleuze & Guattari cite Fernandez, who was ‘particularly critical of Verdi and Wagner for having resexualised the voice, for having restored the binary machine in response to the requirements of capitalism, which wants a man to be a man and a woman a woman, each with his or her own voice’ (ATP 307). The authors contest this conclusion, instead suggesting that Verdi and Wagner ushered music ‘across a new threshold of deterritorialisation’. With these composers, they argue, ‘the voice ceases to be machined for itself, with simple instrumental accompaniment’, but instead
it is the instrument that machines the voice, and the voice and instrument are carried on the same plane in a relation that is sometimes one of confrontation, sometimes one of compensation, sometimes one of exchange and complementarity. (ATP 307)This is the ‘instrumentalisation’ (or ‘becoming-instrument’) of the voice, then. It is debatable whether Deleuze & Guattari would identify such deterritorialisations in ‘I Feel Love’, or pop music in general, but I’d argue that it is exactly this kind of deterritorialisation which occurs the moment vocal-subject and instrumental forces enter into the kind of assemblage that we’d call a ‘song’.
So, despite the tendency for the vocal-subject to reterritorialise on this or that solid identity or concept, be it ‘a woman’, ‘Donna Summer’, ‘the vocalist’, ‘a sexy black female body’, etc., the deterritorialisation of the voice, and its becoming-song/becoming-music, is still primarily a move away from gender (or a ‘real’ gendered human body), just as the vocal-subject’s command of instrumental forces constructs a half-vocal, half-instrumental assemblage whose desire (what she eventually names ‘love’) is therefore more-than-human (more-than-a-feeling, more-than-a-woman, etc etc).6 What then does it mean to hear the beat or the groove as desire – or as libido, a flow of sexual energy – when such desire is attributed to a vocal-subject who exceeds the boundaries of her own sonic body? What kind of love is she feeling, if we hear it in her ‘oo’, in the flow of the synth groove, and in the interaction between the two? And what does it mean for us as listeners (and as dancers) to form an assemblage with this more-than-vocal, more-than-subject desiring-song-assemblage who is ‘I Feel Love’ Donna Summer, whereby we are made to feel her love and desire her desire? I will now attempt to address these questions through an engagement with the gendered, sexually-charged musicology of Susan McClary and Robert Fink. In this way, I hope to present an interpretation of ‘I Feel Love’ that attests to its explicit and radical politics of desire.
Music as the Deterritorialisation of Desire
Robert Fink makes extensive use of Donna Summer’s music, in particular ‘Love To Love You Baby’, in his discussion of sexuality in disco music and minimalism. He draws on Susan McClary’s feminist musicology to frame the structure of these musical forms in terms of a ‘uniquely female sexuality’, predicated upon ‘patterns more diffuse, fluid, cyclic, and holistic than the straight-line teleology of the phallus’ (Fink, 2005: 37):
[McClary] identifies the thrusting, often openly violent principle of musical teleology with the male drive to orgasm; she then contrasts this experience with one created by a woman composer using minimalist process more attuned to female constructions of desire: an experience of ‘shared and sustained pleasure,’ of ‘constant erotic energy’, of ‘ecstasy’. (35)The classic McClary analysis, in terms of ‘male’ musical teleologies, is her discussion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which she calls ‘our most compelling articulation in music of the contradictory impulses that have organized patriarchal culture since the Enlightenment’ (McClary, 2002: 129). The monomaniacal drive forward towards final cadential fulfilment, which McClary hears as violent and masculine, has elsewhere been linked to specifically Western forms of desire. It is this kind of unidirectional teleology that Deleuze and Guattari seek to escape when they attempted to construct A Thousand Plateaus as a ‘rhizomatic’ (networked, rather than ‘arborescent’) structure. Rather than proceeding from exposition to conclusion via a straightforward (or dialectical) unfolding of thought, each successive chapter in the book represents another ‘plateau’, which can be read in any order. The authors borrow the term ‘plateau’ from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson:
Gregory Bateson uses the word "plateau" to designate something very special: a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end. Bateson cites Balinese culture as an example: mother-child sexual games, and even quarrels among men, undergo this bizarre intensive stabilization. "Some sort of continuing plateau of intensity is substituted for [sexual] climax," war, or a culmination point. (ATP 21-22)They continue:
It is a regrettable characteristic of the Western mind to relate expressions and actions to exterior or transcendent ends, instead of evaluating them on a plane of consistency on the basis of their intrinsic value. (ATP 22)The structural concept of the ‘plateau’ can equally be linked to the Balinese musical practice of Gamelan, which was a significant inspiration on the development of the Western minimalist music that Robert Fink discusses, as well as sharing many features of electronic dance musics.
Considering the power relations in ‘I Feel Love’, it is significant that not only are the cyclic beat structures, ostinati and overall ‘teleology’ supposedly ‘female’ (in these terms), but they are themselves deployed by a female vocal-subject, as part of (and immanent within) the performance of her own sensual experience and desire. Thinking about the beat and groove as a flow of erotic energy, the instrumental substance of ‘I Feel Love’ is thereby shown to have its provenance in the production of the vocal-subject’s material desire. Sound becomes desire, in all four modalities discussed above; the vocal-subject herself becomes a kind of ‘object that acts’.7 As sonic body, she is acted upon by the musical forces that surround her; they precede her ‘oo’, and elicit it, producing her as a feeling/desiring subject. Her sensations are, in turn, distilled into sound with that same ‘oo’; her very materiality (her sonic presence) subsists in the expression of her sensation. This in turn acts upon the listener, arousing physical sensations and stimulating responses, but it also acts upon the erotic flow of beats itself, channelling them, magnetising them, redeploying them in the service of the expression of her sensations (new harmonic areas, new harmonic rhythms: ‘This is what my love sounds like!’). The sonic flows that she has produced remain inextricable from the vocal-subject’s own existence; like all vocal-subjects, she has also produced herself. So, these erotic flows – magnetised and objectified-in-sound – can also be experienced as the imposition upon our listening bodies of the vocal-subject’s own patterns of subjectivity, for which sound is a mediator. She fills the track with her desire, and as we desire the beats (or, as the beats are also our desire), so we desire her.
In this way, ‘I Feel Love’ not only works by performing McClary’s and Fink’s gendered hearing, but also by giving credence to the emphasis that Fink (after the composer/musicologist Wim Mertens) places on Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of ‘desiring-machines’ in relation to both minimalism and disco:
Mertens ultimately concludes that minimal music mirrors in sound the dangerously seductive “libidinal philosophy” of Deleuze/Guattari and Lyotard, exalting moment-to-moment intensity over narrative, repetition over dialectics, unbounded and goalless desiring-production over Oedipal stories of castration and lack. In the most extreme formulations of libidinal philosophy, subjectivity itself disappears: the discrete “self” (e.g., the closed musical work) is replaced by momentary, shifting assemblages of body parts (e.g., musical processes) that channel an essentially free-flowing libidinal energy through the endless cycling of what Deleuze and Guattari famously dubbed “desiring-machines”.8 Once reconfigured in this way, the human organism – and its music – is simply not subsumable into the oppressive ranks of late capitalism (or state capitalism, for that matter). Libidinal philosophy (like disco?) offers liberation through “pure” desire, not dialectical struggle. (Fink, 2005: 36-37)The concept of ‘desiring-machines’, outlined in Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, is an explicit renuncation of Freud’s and Jacques Lacan’s conceptualisation of desire in relation to lack (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983). Deleuze and Guattari stress that desire is not the consequence of lack (i.e. you don’t desire because there is something you don’t have, that you desire to have (e.g. the phallus), since this would involve a tautology). Instead, desire is something positive that is produced. Moreover, this material production of desire is not only the basis of all psychic activity but also all social production, through the agglomeration (or ‘molarisation’) of such ‘molecular’ flows of desire on larger scales. If the world is composed by the interaction, stratification and territorialisation of flows, then desire is not only the movement of these flows, but the motor. Desire is the automatic ‘producer’ of itself, functioning through the mechanism that the authors dub ‘desiring-machines’. Desire comes first, then we try and figure out the thing that we desire (and onto which desire is territorialised).
Something of the automation – the self-perpetuation – of desiring flows is mirrored in an understanding of the sound event as an action-agent-subject-object, which produces itself even as its productive energy (and the energy by which it was produced, to which it testifies) exceeds its materiality as physical sonic energy. Donna Summer, a true Deleuzoguattarian, asserts ‘I feel love’ first and foremost. Not ‘I feel love for you’, ‘I feel the desire to have sex with you’, or even ‘I love to love you baby’, but just ‘I feel love’ which is akin to saying ‘I desire, and that is enough’. This might be translated, using the language of A Thousand Plateaus, into ‘love-as-affect’, as opposed to ‘love-as-sentiment'. Discussing the work of the writer Heinrich von Kleist, D&G describe ‘affect’ thus:
[In Kleist,] feelings become uprooted from the interiority of a "subject," to be projected violently outward into a milieu of pure exteriority that lends them an incredible velocity, a catapulting force: love or hate, they are no longer feelings but affects. […] Affects transpierce the body like arrows, they are weapons of war. The deterritorialization velocity of affect. (ATP 356)Later in the book, the authors differentiate further between affects and ‘feelings’:
Feeling implies an evaluation of matter and its resistances, a direction [Translator’s note: sens, also "meaning"] to form and its developments, an economy of force and its displacements, an entire gravity. But the regime of the war machine is on the contrary that of affects, which relate only to the moving body in itself, to speeds and compositions of speed among elements. Affect is the active discharge of emotion, the counterattack, whereas feeling is an always displaced, retarded, resisting emotion. Affects are projectiles just like weapons; feelings are introceptive like tools. (ATP 400)Affects, therefore, are proper to the vocal-subject as ‘war machine’, a denizen of ‘smooth space’ (see previous chapter). The ‘affects’ of a body are the accompaniment to its constitution through aggregating flows of particles which, together, D&G call ‘the longitude and latitude’ of a body: ‘You are longitude and latitude, a set of speeds and slownesses between unformed particles, a set of nonsubjectified affects’. Affects precede feelings, which are implicated in the territorialisation of affect: the latching of desire onto this or that object. Donna Summer’s ‘I feel love’ can be heard as the ‘active discharge’ of desire, into the pure exteriority of the track, the songworld, the club, the very air through which it vibrates.
For Deleuze and Guattari, desire is certainly not the same as pleasure. The attainment and prolongation of ‘positive’ desire is not only far more radical than the pursuit of pleasure, but the latter is a way of obstructing the former:
Desire will be assuaged by pleasure; and not only will the pleasure obtained silence desire for a moment but the process of obtaining it is already a way of interrupting it, of instantly discharging it and unburdening oneself of it (ATP 154).They demonstrate this through the figure of the masochist, whose suffering is ‘the price he must pay, not to achieve pleasure, but to untie the pseudo bond between desire and pleasure as an extrinsic measure’.
Pleasure is in no way something that can be attained only by a detour through suffering; it is something that must be delayed as long as possible because it interrupts the continuous process of positive desire. There is, in fact, a joy that is immanent to desire as though desire were filled by itself and its contemplations, a joy that implies no lack or impossibility and is not measured by pleasure since it is what distributes intensities of pleasure and prevents them from being suffused by anxiety, shame, and guilt. (ATP 155)At the same time, pleasure is ‘an affection of a person or a subject; it is the only way for persons to "find themselves" in the process of desire that exceeds them’ (ATP 156). In this way, to fix upon a vocal-subject, a listening subject, a musical object and a relationship between these at all – to position oneself within the songworld – is the kind of reterritorialisation that converts abstract desire into specific pleasures. Indeed, this very act of written interpretation is a rather extreme example of just this sort of thing. Such an orientation might be contrasted with one’s experience in the sensory overload of the club environment, adequately drugged and disoriented, whereby one loses one’s sense of self within a larger ‘assemblage’ of flows of sound, light, bodies and affects, something approaching D&G’s field of immanence: ‘The absolute Outside that knows no Selves because interior and exterior are equally a part of the immanence in which they have fused’ (ATP 156).
Still, the relative radicalism of ‘I Feel Love’ in its approach to desire, when contrasted with the representation of love in much pop music, allows for a telling investigation into the nature and limits of the notion of the vocal-subject qua Subject. Having oriented themselves in relation to the song-world, the listener finds themselves in a complicated, triangular relationship with both the vocal-subject (not to mention the ‘real’ vocalist/artist behind the vocal-subject), and the object of the vocal-subject’s love (i.e. the addressee, especially as they appear in the second and third verses of the song: ‘Fallin’ free/You and me’ and ‘I’ll get you/What you do’ etc.).9 As the sonic body and its synthesised flows are both the source and expression of desire, and of pleasure, the song’s subject, object and listener become components in a kind of autoerotic circuit. The ‘beam’ of pulsing beats, which flows into, over and out of the sonic body of the vocal-subject, becomes multi-directional, intensifying as it flows back and forth from singer to addressee to listener. And of course, the listener also is the only ‘real’ addressee (i.e. the object of the singer’s desire) while also in turn being the only real subject of the song, since the song is necessarily ‘constructed’ in the listener’s head. The vocal-subject’s desire, territorialised as sound, becomes the object of our pleasure. And yet, this cannot wholly efface the fact that the voice constitutes a ‘real’, other voice whose presence is immanent to the expression of their own desire.
And it goes round and round like that. It’s what I imagine as a ‘lasers-in-the-mirror-room’ effect, in which a single flow of desire (the initial synth groove) becomes orgiastically reflected and refracted, across different surfaces, and through different subject-holes and body-prisms, with each transformation strengthening rather than weakening the beam. The ‘sonic gaze’ (if such a concept is permitted) becomes more and more eroticised as it encounters itself, with the result of a kind of positive feedback loop of arousal: fucking in the mirror. Deleuze and Guattari might relate this to the ‘circuit of intensities’ created in Taoist sexual practices, as in this paragraph from A Thousand Plateaus, which echoes McClary’s and Fink’s discussion of non-masculine musical teleologies:
We see in [Taoist treaties] the formation of a circuit of intensities between female and male energy, with the woman playing the role of the innate or instinctive force (Yin) stolen by or transmitted to the man in such a way that the transmitted force of the man (Yang) in turn becomes innate, all the more innate: an augmentation of powers. The condition for this circulation and multiplication is that the man not ejaculate. It is not a question of … delaying pleasure in order to produce a kind of externalizable surplus value, but instead of constituting an intensive body without organs, Tao, a field of immanence in which desire lacks nothing and therefore cannot be linked to any external or transcendent criterion. (ATP 157)In this case, then, the listener becomes a component in an assemblage – a circuit – along with a vocal-subject/object, love-subject/object, but crucially, they also lose their own identity within this assemblage…10
…Or, they do up to a point. In the next chapter, I will attempt to address the ‘problem’ of the voice in dance music, starting with this promise of losing one’s identity in the jouissance or ekstasis of the dancefloor. Just as the song begins with the deterritorialisation of the singing subject, the voice and the vocals, so this moment is accompanied by a complementary reterritorialisation onto the vocal-subject itself, which can interrupt the free flow of desire and polarise the circuitry of the assemblage.
Postscript 1: Janet Jackson in Control
To demonstrate that my own brand of ‘power analysis’ can be extricated from McClary’s gendered musicology, in which music-as-desire can be heard on a spectrum patterned by gendered sexual norms (and in which ‘the male’ invariably coincides with ‘the violent’), I want to pick out one particular example from Feminine Endings with which I disagree. It bears on a certain essentialising tendency to classify beats and grooves (and entire genres!) a priori in gendered terms, according to their character, without taking into account their relation to the vocal-subject within the constructed song-world:
The options available to a woman musician in rock music are especially constrictive, for this musical discourse is typically characterised by its phallic backbeat. It is possible to try and downplay that beat, to attempt to defuse that energy – but this strategy also results in music that sounds enervated or stereotypically ‘feminine’. It is also possible to appropriate the phallic energy of rock and to demonstrate (as Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett and Lita Ford do so well) that boys don’t have any corner on that market. But that beat can always threaten to overwhelm: witness Janet Jackson’s containment by producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in (ironically) her song ‘Control’. (McClary, 2002: 111)I believe that McClary is here drawing too easy a dichotomy along the lines of sonic ‘violence’, in which she has grouped ‘rock’ timbres on one side and (supposedly) ‘pop’ timbres on the other. What makes a beat ‘thrusting’, and how does this ‘thrust’ equate to the much larger-scale ‘thrust’ of the male musical teleology, that the author famously discusses in her critiques of Beethoven? Is it not a bit mean to essentialise a whole genre based on its ‘phallic’ beat, and then expect its effective evasion to simultaneously avoid the ‘stereotypically “feminine”’? Can she really believe that ‘boys don’t have any corner on that market’ (i.e., the phallus market) while simultaneously assuming that for the beat to ‘overwhelm’ must necessarily invoke a gendered politics of male-on-female violence, framing the female artist as inept in the face of an unmanageable genre, rather than the author of a calculated, satirical or auto-erotic performance of abandonment?
For me, of course, beats might be openly violent or more insidious/seductive, following the distinct technologies of regulation and punishment which I outline in Chapter 1.3, but the important consideration is how these different technologies are deployed by or against gendered vocal-subjects. This also undermines the problematic labeling of female rock musicians as ‘male impersonators’, who are somehow cheating because they are co-opting power strategies (i.e. ‘violent’ timbres, rhythms and dynamics) that are essentially male.
The Janet Jackson song itself is, as far as I’m concerned, one in which a huge amount of power and (yes!) control is concentrated in the vocal-subject. I don’t find the title or lyrics ironic at all, although it is part of my project to purposefully ignore the facts of the genders of ‘producers’ and ‘songwriters’, and to focus on the appearance of the vocal-subject on the recorded track. After all, no-one actually experiences the song as ‘Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, feat. Janet Jackson on vocals’. These gender details are irrelevant if we’re studying the song as it’s experienced, rather than in terms of the ‘true’ or ‘real’ conditions of its production.
The mention of the song in a paragraph discussing rock music also seems like a non-sequitur, since it’s really a super-funky, new jack swing thing. The way I hear it, Jackson is not so much ‘contained’ by the beat as single-handedly holding it together (along with the backing vocalists who function as her minions). It’s so disjointed, it frequently threatens to fall apart, so that every refrain of ‘control!’ constitutes a high-power gesture that effectively jump-starts the song again, with Jackson’s initial ‘I’m in…’ clearly initiating this refrain. The high-power middle-eight hijacks the beat and leaves it comically flailing, before she re-enters. There are plenty of other examples of Jackson dictating the beat, so to suggest that she’s contained by it, with all her imperious speech singing and countermelodies (not to mention the extended spoken intro), seems very wrong-footed.11 It is only in the fantastic final moments, when the ‘control’ refrain itself begins to come apart, that the tables are turned.
Postscript 2: Goldfrapp in Love (with a Strict Machine)
One song that can be instructively contrasted with ‘I Feel Love’ is Goldfrapp’s suspiciously similar track ‘Strict Machine’ from Black Cherry (2003). A comparison of these songs highlights the peculiarities of the representation of love/desire (and their relation to power and control) in each.
‘Strict Machine’ borrows various melodic, structural and topical elements from ‘I Feel Love’, but reproduces them in a very different way. The descending contours and rhythms of the opening lines mimic those of the older song, but the harmony here stays rigid and refuses to change for the vocal-subject. The repeated ‘wonderful electric’ line [0:23] effects a kind of intensification of these ‘strict’ instrumental forces, while at the same time falling into step with them rhythmically.12 The one moment of harmonic flexibility – ‘Cover me in you’ [0:45] (in which the harmony moves to the dominant) – recalls the refrain section of ‘I Feel Love’, but this is superseded by the actual chorus which returns to the original harmony [0:54].
Interestingly, in this chorus, the utterances ‘I’m in love’ do come on anacruses, flowing into the strong beat of the following bar (suggestive of high-power gestures), but they are cut off by the drums on the second beat, which can be heard as either caused by a resistant vocal refusing to finish the whole line, or punished by the instrumental forces for singing out. When the vocal finally does get to finish its line – ‘…with a strict machine’ [0:58] – the rigid backbeat locks in even tighter. But is it not the vocal line which is disciplining the ‘machine’ of the groove? There is a feeling throughout of a kind of push and pull, even that the vocal-subject is using her power to voluntarily strengthen the control of the groove.
Alison Goldfrapp and her strict machine – the Goldfrapp-machine assemblage – returns us to Deleuze & Guattari on masochism. Certainly we can detect in the song the same desire to lose the self by integrating it as one component within a larger assemblage, even if it requires subordinating the self, restraining it, mutilating it. In so doing, ‘the masochist constructs an entire assemblage that simultaneously draws and fills the field of immanence of desire’ (ATP 156). To integrate oneself within such an assemblage, for Deleuze & Guattari, means to negate oneself as an organism, but instead to become a ‘Body without Organs’.13 For the masochist body, this is a question of the ‘sewing up’, ‘stringing up’, ‘sealing tight’, ‘smothering and sodomising’ of the organs, ‘to stop [them] from working’ (ATP 150). This is the first step in a two-step ‘programme’, which concludes with a thrashing. ‘Two clearly distinguished phases’ – ‘sewing and flogging’ (ATP 152):
One phase is for the fabrication of the Body without Organs (BwO), the other to make something circuate on it or pass across it.… What is certain is that the masochist has made himself a BwO under such conditions that the BwO can no longer be populated by anything but intensities of pain, pain waves. It is false to say that the masochist is looking for pain but just as false to say that he is looking for pleasure in a particularly suspensive or roundabout way. The masochist is looking for a type of BwO that only pain can fill, or travel over, due to the very conditions under which that BwO was constituted. (ATP 152)This same is true, I would argue, of the assemblage that Goldfrapp construct, in which vocal-subject and synth groove are bound together through mutual coercion, the freedom and autonomy of both suspended. This kind of extreme impotence – the wiring up of the vocal-subject to a strict beat machine – allows the bludgeoning beats to flow in and out of her, filling her and travelling over her. Yet the masochist body is only one strategy by which to construct a Body without Organs. Deleuze & Guattari also list the drugged body, the paranoid body, the hypochondriac body, the schizo body: ‘a dreary parade of sucked-dry, catatonicised, vitrified, sewn-up bodies’ (ATP 150). These bodies – ‘empty bodies instead of full ones’ – are listed as a warning: a catalogue of some of the dangers that one faces when one attempts to lose oneself in this way. This species of ‘strict machine’ also crops up frequently in Anti-Oedipus, and is often equated with fascism: the fascist mob, the Volk, the full body of the State and its dictator being just another assemblage within which one can lose one’s identity.
The difference between these destructive Bodies without Organs, and the Bodies without Organs that are ‘full of gaiety, ecstasy, and dance’, is akin to the difference between the statement ‘I feel love’ and the statement ‘I’m in love with…’, especially as Goldfrapp is ‘in love with’ a violent machine. ‘Strict Machine’ gives us a glimpse of a Donna Summer-like vocal-subject properly territorialised, contained and disciplined by a beat (whether it is ‘phallic’, in McClary’s words, or a kind of narcissistic projection of a monstrous female desire of the kind that is sometimes represented in these ‘fembot’ songs (which are perhaps also ‘phallic’ projections at their core)). Every wayward beat or note is met with a strengthening of the bonds, a bulging of the muscles which strap the vocal-subject to both metre and harmony; yet this mechanism is also desired and perhaps even initiated by her. In this way, the ‘strict machine’ is the same ‘fascist baby’ that Goldfrapp mentions on her previous single, ‘Utopia’. The territorialisation of her desire onto their mutually destructive relationship is a performance of the ‘micro-fascisms’ which, according to Deleuze & Guattari, can invest every aspect of our lives, causing us to ‘desire against our interests’.14 It also transfigures the ambiguous desire of ‘I Feel Love’ into something much more straightforwardly sexual.
Yet, pace McClary, this needn’t represent the pathetic flailings of a female vocalist mercilessly pummeled by her male producers/co-writers. As an explicit performance of such a power dynamic, which clearly articulates the violence involved, the song can actually be heard as critical. Perhaps the final arching countermelody, initiated by the synth and taken up by the voice, even promises a ‘line of flight’ out of this mutually disciplining relationship.
1 See Greg Hainge’s essay ‘Is Pop Music?’ in Deleuze and Music (Buchanan & Swiboda (eds.), 2004)↩
2 Of course, to really get to grips with the song-as-assemblage, we need to factor in many more elements: most importantly, the listener, who becomes-with the sound (music can only exist by being heard as such, which requires an assemblage of sound and listener). Then there is the regime of linguistic signs through which we interpret meaning in the lyrics, in the meaningful non-linguistic aspects of the voice, the territorialisation of sound assemblages on ‘genres’ and ‘styles’ with specific histories and narratives, the circumstances of listening (why? where? with whom?), etc. If we already know ‘the song’, then the assemblage is partially territorialised onto the discrete identity of ‘I Feel Love’ as a musical text. If we already know the version, the recording, the performance, then it is partially territorialised onto a recorded text, with an assumed history of production, and thence onto a set of discrete historical moments, in a studio somewhere. Despite these partial territorialisations, the song assemblage (which is impossible to enclose within a particular set of dimensions, but maintains fuzzy borders (a form that Deleuze & Guattari call a haecceity)) extends to the entirety of the listener’s psychic impressions, associations, expectations and reconfigurations during its playback, as well as the shifts in knowledge and understanding that it produces and the memory that it evokes thereafter.↩
3 What I am effectively attempting throughout this blogbook, by considering musical phrases as ‘actions’ with relative ‘power’, is an analysis that bears on a theory of musical narrativity. In his book on the subject, Byron Almén draws a number of theoretical precedents (including work by Eero Tarasti, Vera Micznik and Robert Hatton) into an analytical system that makes a useful distinction between the modality of sound as either agent or action, within an overall narrative. His system consists of three levels: the agential layer (establishing the character of/relationship between musical ‘agents’), the actantial layer (establishing the nature of musical actions), and the narrative layer (drawing all this together into a narrative, wherein an initially established hierarchy between agents is transformed or reaffirmed after a period of crisis). See Almén, 2008.↩
4 To an extent, this is all also true of the 'oo' in ‘oo love to love you baby’ (see Fink, 2005 for a deeper analysis of 'Love To Love You Baby').↩
5 Deleuze & Guattari elsewhere famously discuss ‘becoming-woman’ as the first deterritorialisation of the subject, the first index of becoming-minoritarian, which I described in Chapter 1.4. The discussion in that chapter of Antony Hegarty and Joel Thibodeau as vocal-subjects is particularly relevant to Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the ‘machining of the voice’.↩
6 See Jeremy Gilbert’s excellent essay ‘More than a Woman’ (Gilbert, 2006) on the Bee Gees’ becoming-woman, via the ‘machining’ of their voices, and the complexities that this creates for a gender politics of disco. Gilbert also gives a good introduction to the use of Deleuze & Guattari’s theory in relation to dance music. See also: Gilbert & Pearson, 1999↩
7 See Moten, 2003, for the object that acts, and its relation to black aesthetics.↩
8 The machines to which Deleuze and Guattari frequently refer are always automated, autonomous, automata.↩
9 More on these second and third verses in the next chapter…↩
10 When Deleuze & Guattari talk about a 'body without organs' (which they do rather a lot), they are talking about this kind of assemblage as an undifferentiated, homogeneous and ‘full’ body, rather than a sequence of differentiated entities that serve different roles (i.e. an organism).↩
11 And even if we’re taking into account the video, in which she’s clearly surrounded by male musicians, her ‘Bam!’ kicks off the main riff, while her claps and dancing actually seem to regulate the pulse throughout.↩
12 The bridge section in which we hear the repeated ‘wonderful electric’ is curiously extended, as if a four-by-four phrase structure has been imposed on the vocal-subject only after the more flexible verse has already ended.↩
13 Here they quote Artaud: ‘For you can tie me up if you wish, but there is nothing more useless than an organ’ (cited ATP 150).↩
14 Goldfrapp has stated in interviews that the song was inspired by a laboratory experiment in which scientists stimulated rats’ brains so that they felt joy when following commands.↩